Opera's '80s twist

Classical music

April 20, 2002|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,SUN MUSIC CRITIC

Agrippina is among opera's most delectable villains. Like a film noir vixen, she snares unsuspecting men (and a female rival) into complex, dastardly plots. But, unlike in the movies, there is no comeuppance for her, no victory for law or morality. She gets exactly what she always wanted - the ultimate promotion for her son.

Of course, because that son is Nero, Agrippina will eventually regret her machinations (matricide would be only one of the new emperor's favorite diversions). But that's another story.

The earlier part - Agrippina's endless conniving - was enough to generate Handel's first operatic hit. Understandably, the work still attracts attention, nearly three centuries after its splendid premiere in Venice; New York City Opera happens to have a production of Agrippina on the boards now, as does Baltimore's Opera Vivente.

The local venture, which opened Thursday at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, finds the young company in imaginative form. Although the score's demands are not met in uniformly successful fashion, the music's extraordinary color and spice emerge. (Judicious trims have been made, but the running time, with two intermissions, still approaches four hours.)

John Bowen's new English translation of the libretto by Italian cardinal Vincenzo Grimani retains and occasionally embellishes the original's satire, humor and poetry.

And Bowen has come up with an updated staging that works well within Anthea Smith's stylishly stark set design in shades of gray and black.

Agrippina is patterned after Joan Collins in the deliciously over-the-top TV show Dynasty, with an eye-catching wardrobe to match. This Agrippina doesn't send a waiting page off to deliver a message, but hits the intercom button on her desk phone and tells an unseen "Trevor" to do her bidding.

Agrippina's primary nemesis, the sexy Poppea, gives her a run for her money in the couture department (including a bedtime outfit on a Victoria's Secret level). Roman emperor Claudius and most of the other men stick to business suits. A cluster of plebes, looking like street people, appears now and then to provide a jolt of contrast.

In the title role, Fenlon Lamb revealed a bright, flexible voice, ever-vibrant phrasing and theatrical flourish Thursday. She was particularly impressive in the closing aria of Act 2, one of Handel's most sparkling inventions, with a buoyant, catchy waltz tune that Haydn and Schubert would have envied.

Vikki Ann Jones offered finely molded, often-brilliant coloratura and assured acting as Poppea. She sounded like a soprano with a big future.

Nero, a castrato role in 1709, was performed by a "sopranisto" (or male soprano), Marquice Alexander. Some intonation and articulation slips aside, his light voice proved effective, and he caught the would-be ruler's immaturity tellingly enough. Too bad he was stuck with an unfortunate wig.

So was Brendan Cooke (I assume all the big hair was meant to recall the '80s styles of Dynasty), but his ripe tones and firm technique fleshed out Pallante's character winningly.

There were varying degrees of vocal finesse from Peter Murphy (Claudius), Stephanie Bramble-Butler (Ottone) and Jennifer Blades (Narcissus). Monica Reinagel (Juno) sang with considerable warmth and nuance. William Heim's warm sound and colorful phrasing stood out in the small role of Lesbos.

Conductor Aaron Sherber encountered a few rough patches, but generally kept the score flowing vibrantly. Adam Pearl at the harpsichord and David Shumway at the cello gave the performance a solid, vivid foundation. At its best, the small orchestra's valiant work helped bring Handel's genius to life.

Agrippina

Where: Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 811 Cathedral St.

When: 2 p.m. tomorrow

Tickets: $15 (students, seniors) and $20

Call: 410-547-7997

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